“Culture” in Aidland: A Talk by Prof. Mark Schuller

By: Angela Okune

The University of California Irvine’s International Studies Public Forum recently hosted Professor Mark Schuller (Northern Illinois University/l’Université d’État d’Haïti) who interrogated the failure of humanitarian interventions in the global South and proposed that such failure is tied to the “culture” of aid agencies. Schuller discussed insights from his ethnographic study of responses by humanitarian agencies to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and unequivocally stated that Haiti was not “built back better.”

Source: Northern Illinois University (http://images.media.niu.edu/picture.php?/296392/categories)

Applying notions of culture as signified by rites of passage, particular language, and insularity, Schuller described an NGO audit culture focused on producing numbers and short-term solutions. “NGOs,” he suggested, “make decisions by how it will look to auditors.” Critiquing this misalignment, Schuller noted that the current reward system is not designed to hold agencies accountable to the recipients of aid, but rather to the donors. He argued that rather than developing expertise in working sincerely with on-the-ground collaborators, NGOs develop expertise in producing progress reports for Western donors. Such reports of course do little for the aid recipients themselves who usually do not have access, even if so desired, to review such documents.

In his talk, Schuller highlighted some of the changes required to transform NGO culture. “If you see people as mouths to feed, you don’t see people as capacity or skills or as part of the solution.” “Humanitarianism 3.0,” Schuller articulated, requires a move towards solidarity rather than charity. He outlined several steps towards such a vision including connecting local jobs to needs/training; rebuilding local government through contracting/logistics; changing the reward structure; and setting a new “minimum standard of ethics” to show dignified recipients of aid rather than playing into the emotional appeal of the suffering subject.

As tax payers to a government that is currently the largest donor of humanitarian aid (although that may not be the case for long under the Trump administration), Schuller closed by suggesting that American citizens are in the best position to hold donor governments accountable. “If we do not have accountability from below, no one is holding them [donor governments] accountable.” Recalling what Haitians recommended to him, Schuller recounted: “Before asking how you can help us [Haitians], you need to bring democracy back to Washington. Do you have the phone numbers of your representatives programmed into your phone?”.


Mark Schuller is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and NGO Leadership and Development at Northern Illinois University and affiliate at the Faculté d’Ethnologie, l’Université d’État d’Haïti. Schuller is the author of two monographs, including Humanitarian Aftershocks in Haiti (Rutgers, 2015) and co-editor of four volumes, including Tectonic Shifts: Haiti since the Earthquake (Kumarian Press, 2012). He is co-director / co-producer of documentary Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy (2009). For more information on his work, visit http://www.niu.edu/anthro/faculty_staff/faculty/schuller.shtml